Monday, November 23, 2009

lighting a candle

it seems we live in a world beset by darkness. everywhere we look there are forces less than benign. cruelty, malice, anger, hate. in behavior and in nature. and everywhere we find the hallmarks of their presence and the legacies of their message: fear, sorrow, suffering, despair. as black as eternity's abyss.

we see so much of this that we are led to believe this is the state of the world. that our universe always is and always has been and always will be darkness. and in so doing, we are led to believe that there can be nothing else. that our dreams of a different world, our vision of another life, our hopes for something more are only just that: dreams, visions, hopes. of that which is not and has never been and never will be reality.

and so as a result, so many times for so many people in so many places in this world, there comes the acceptance of defeat, and with it the rejection of dreams. and we tell ourselves that whatever it was for which we had wished was just not meant to be. and we resign ourselves to the darkness.

but it does not have to be this way.

you see, the fact that we dream is proof that there is another course. that things can be better than they are. the fact that we can conceive of a universe that is more than this is evidence that it has the prospect of greater possibilities...of things that were meant to be.

and it can be this way.

all it takes is that we hold to our dreams, and make of them our visions, and build upon them our hopes. and thereby allow ourselves to believe that there can be something else.

and then act to make of it reality.

so that it takes fire against the night. so that we may see the world is not black. so that there is light brought into the abyss.

and yes, the darkness is vast. and yes, the darkness is strong. and yes, the darkness is many.

but that is all the more reason we must spark the candle that is life.

singly. individually. personally.

so that there is a beacon in the darkness for all the lost souls out there to find their way into the light and to learn that they are not blind and to ignite the fires of what they that the flames begin to catch, and the fire rises higher, and gives the universe a flame as great and as powerful and as infinite as the glory of all eternity.

one candle at a time.

starting with you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

mary oliver and the message of moving on

it appears that i didn't do a very good job trying to publicize a favorite poet of mine in a previous post (reference: an extra off-day of poetry). it turns out the link doesn't work. which is a shame, since she's one of my favorites, and i think deserving of more attention than she's gotten. to rectify this error, i'm do a re-post, so that she can get the credit she deserves.

the poet in question is Mary Oliver. she's a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work seems to make its way into popular culture--unfortunately without proper citation. you can find a very good biographical summary of her at the Poetry Foundation website (reference: Mary Oliver's page). i'm a fan, in part because unlike so many "award-winning" artists that i've seen, her stuff isn't overblown, overhyped, overdone verbosity.

i find her poetry really good. i mean really good. as in it does what really really really good poems are supposed to do: slow you down, create a pause in your day, and let you take in the air and sun and clear blue sky and the supreme depths of a single moment of time held in infinite stillness.

which brings me to the main reason i like her poetry: realization. particularly in regards to the self.

you see, there are certain moments in certain situations in certain conditions in certain ways, in the instances that lie transfixed between the interstices of time, in the places that sit within the recesses of the universe, in emotions and memories and thoughts and senses felt so often so much so only alone, when you don't need help with cadence, when you don't need help with motivation, when you don't need help with reaching deeper truths, but instead need help in finding an understanding to a singular, peculiar, particular aspect of the instinctual, fundamental, eternal question: why?

part of the answer to this is in the meaning rhetorical, as in relation to things outside or beyond or greater than yourself: what is it that you are trying to reach? what is it that you are trying to find? what is it that you seek?

but another part of the answer--and a part perhaps more antecedent, perhaps more basic, perhaps more profound--is in the meaning specific, as in terms of you and you alone: what is it that makes you search? what is it that makes you wish, want, need to search?

in essence, i can phrase the question as this: what gives you your why?

and when you're at mile 130 and beyond all stages of suffering and looking at another 13 yet to go, you will be faced with that question, and you will need to find an least, if you want to have any chance of moving on.

and that's where i find Mary Oliver's work comes in. because the spirit and subject matter of her poetry seems to get to this. not explicitly, not clearly, but most definitely directly, and in a way that gets to the heart of the question.

i can tell you there have been times when i have faced that question, and was not sure of the answer, and thought back to her lines, and found something that led me to it. and that something was me.

and that's what her poems are about. the self. and learning about it. and discovering that there is more to it than you ever thought possible.

more than enough to move on.

here's what i mean:

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The Buddha's Last Instruction
"Make of yourself a light "
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal - a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I'm not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door

to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,

but gods.
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give

but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them

and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water

from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,

and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down--
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning--
whatever it was I said

I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

exercise and immunity

well, since we're heading into that season again, replete with this year's spectre of H1N1 as the bogeyman of sniffles, coughs, runny noses, fevers, delirium, phlegm, and all other host of potential assorted symptoms, i figure it's time to offer up this piece of medical interest for all you athletes intent on training through the health hazards that lurk ahead of us:
it's an article from the New York Times presenting findings of recent health research on the relationship between exercise and immunity, particularly with respect to the influenza virus. in case the link doesn't work, i've put the full text of the article at the end of this post. in brief, the studies it describes showed that mice forced to engage in stressful exercise (apparently in terms of intensity or duration) suffered higher rates and worse prognoses of illness when exposed to the influenza virus relative to mice who were made to engage in moderate exercise.

for humans, the studies go on to assert
  • the greater the intensity or duration of exercise, the greater and longer the suppression of the immune system
  • the immune system relationship to exercise follows a "J"-shaped curve, with the risk of illness initially decreasing with an increase in exercise, but then rising dramatically as exercise stress increases
  • suppression of the immune system occurs with either high intensity or high volume exercise, meaning both individually are sufficient sources of stress to induce illness
in addition, an interesting point for endurance athletes was the definition of exercise stress used by the studies. "intense" exercise was roughly identified as a workout or race lasting an 1 hour or more with a high heart rate and a perceived exertion level of hard. as most of you know, this pretty much constitutes endurance sports (i can't think of a workout lasting less than 1 hr.), which leads to the implication that endurance athletes are more susceptible than most to illness, particularly the flu.

personally, i can attest to an increased vulnerability to all sorts of malaises during training season, particularly when that training coincides with the winter (and if you're training for a spring Ironman, you will be training through the winter, bet on it). and invariably, the illnesses have occurred in the days following intense or high-volume workouts, with every 2-hour swim session, every 6-hour bike ride, every 3-hour run being a guaranteed surefire recipe for infectious misery and contagious suffering.

which was bad enough, but then incurred insult to injury by wiping me out so much that i've been bedridden to an extent that it wiped out whatever training gains i'd made in the workout. this has inevitably led to a vicious circle, with me ramping up the workouts as soon as i recovered in an attempt to catch up on the training plan, only to put myself through the same exercise stress that caused my illnesses to begin with, sending me back to bedrest with another round of sickness.

i've taken to following the dictum that caution is the better part of valor, and taking maximum care to protect myself. this doesn't mean cutting back on the workouts--that, of all things, is most assured--but rather means making greater efforts to monitor the things that can boost my immune system and isolate me from possible sources of disease. nutrition-wise, this means more nutrients, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, etc. disease-wise, this means more washing, sterilizing, disinfecting, covering up, resting, etc.

it's a bit of work, since it takes a conscious commitment to change personal habits, and it sometimes feels like it verges on hypochondria--and yet one more thing to add to all my other neuroses. but it makes a difference, especially as i watch other athletes fall prey to unknown bugs and ailments that they can't identify, can't trace, and worse, can't shake.

of course, having said that, i should note that none of this should be used as arguments to avoid exercise. a good immune system comes with good health, good health comes with good fitness, and good fitness comes with good exercise. the question is how much and what kind. a moderate amount is good, even beneficial. an excess poses an issue.

but even then, i think the issue is manageable. the trick is just knowing how all the variables of immunity, health, fitness, and exercise are related, and then making sure your behavior observes the nuances of those relationships in a way that enables your exercise regimen while still ensuring your immunity.

at least, that's what i'm telling myself as i head through my winter training schedule to yet another spring Ironman. here's to hoping i get the trick right.

Phys Ed: Does Exercise Boost Immunity?
New York Times
By Gretchen Reynolds
October 14, 2009

Two recent experiments hit rather close to home at this time of year. In the first, published last year in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers divided mice into two groups. One rested comfortably in their cages. The other ran on little treadmills until they were exhausted. This continued for three days. The mice were then exposed to an influenza virus. After a few days, more of the mice who’d exhausted themselves running came down with the flu than the control mice. They also had more severe symptoms.

In the second experiment, published in the same journal, scientists from the University of Illinois and other schools first infected laboratory mice with flu. One group then rested; a second group ran for a leisurely 20 or 30 minutes, an easy jog for a mouse; the third group ran for a taxing two and a half hours. Each group repeated this routine for three days, until they began to show flu symptoms. The flu bug used in this experiment is devastating to rodents, and more than half of the sedentary mice died. But only 12 percent of the gently jogging mice passed away. Meanwhile, an eye-popping 70 percent of the mice in the group that had run for hours died, and even those that survived were more debilitated and sick than the control group.

Is this good news or bad? This is a particularly relevant question as two important human events converge: the peaking of the fall marathon and other sports seasons and the simultaneous onset of the winter cold and flu term. Scientists are diligently working to answer that question, perhaps because they are as interested as the rest of us in avoiding or lessening the severity of colds and the flu. The bulk of the new research, including the mouse studies mentioned, reinforce a theory that physiologists advanced some years ago, about what they call “a J-shaped curve” involving exercise and immunity. In this model, the risk both of catching a cold or the flu and of having a particularly severe form of the infection “drop if you exercise moderately,” says Mary P. Miles, PhD, an associate professor of exercise sciences at Montana State University and the author of an editorial about exercise and immunity published in the most recent edition of the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Review. But the risk both of catching an illness and of becoming especially sick when you do “jump right back up” if you exercise intensely or for a prolonged period of time, surpassing the risks among the sedentary. (Although definitions of intense exercise vary among researchers, most define it as a workout or race of an hour or more during which your heart rate and respiration soar and you feel as if you are working hard.)

Why exercise should affect either your susceptibility to catching an illness or how badly a particular bug affects you is still unclear. But it does appear that intense workouts and racing suppress the body’s immune response for a period of time immediately after you’ve finished exercising and that “the longer the duration and the more intense” the exercise, “the longer the temporary period of immunosuppression lasts — anything from a few hours to a few days has been suggested,” says Nicolette Bishop, an associate professor of sport and exercise sciences at Loughborough University and the author of a review article about exercise and immunity published in January.

A telling new study, published in August in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, looked at cellular markers of immune system activity in the saliva of twenty-four, Spanish, professional soccer players, before and after a strenuous, 70-minute match. Before play, the saliva of most of the players showed normal levels of immunoglobulins, substances that help to fight off infection. Afterward, concentrations of saliva immunoglobulins in many of them had fallen dramatically.

If scientists aren’t sure yet why intense exercise temporarily depresses the immune system, however, they seem to be closer to understanding why, once you’ve caught a bug, intense exercise can make the symptoms and severity worse. In work at the University of Illinois, reported last month in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Review, some of the same scientists who’d studied mice and flu looked at just what was going on inside the cells of the affected animals. They found that the leisurely jogging rodents showed signs of a very particular immune response to the flu. In general, and this is true in both mice and men, says Jeffrey A. Woods, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois and one of the scientists involved, viruses evoke an increase in what are called T1-type helper immune cells. These T1-helper cells induce inflammation and other changes in the body that represent a first line of defense against an invading virus. But if the inflammation, at first so helpful, continues for too long, it becomes counterproductive. The immune system needs, then, at some point to lessen the amount of T1-mediated inflammatory response, so that, in fighting the virus, it doesn’t accidentally harm its own host. The immune system does this by gradually increasing the amount of another kind of immune cell, T2-helper cells, which produce mostly an anti-inflammatory immune response. They’re water to the T1 fire. But the balance between the T1- and T2-helper cells must be exquisitely calibrated.

In the mice at the University of Illinois, moderate exercise subtly hastened the shift from a T1 response to a T2-style immune response — not by much, but by just enough, apparently, to have a positive impact against the flu. “Moderate exercise appears to suppress TH1 a little, increase TH2 a little,” Woods says.

On the other hand, intense or prolonged exercise “may suppress TH1 too much,” he says. Long, hard runs or other workouts may shut down that first line of defense before it has completed its work, which could lead, Woods says “to increased susceptibility to viral infection.” So, if you have just completed a strenuous 20-mile training run and have, in consequence, a depressed immune response, avoid colleagues who are sniffling. Wash your hands often. “I would recommend everyone get the annual influenza vaccination and the new H1N1 vaccination,” Woods says. But if all of that has been for naught and you now feel the early stirrings of sickness, “listen to your body and be prudent in your exercise decisions,” Woods says. In general, moderate exercise, such as a leisurely jog or walk, may prop up your immune response and lessen the duration and severity of a mild infection, but be honest about your condition. “If you don’t feel well, especially if you have fever or body aches, I would recommend stopping daily exercise until you are recovered,” Woods says. “It is okay to exercise if you have a simple head cold or congestion — in fact, it may improve the way you feel. I would avoid heavy, prolonged exercise with a head cold, though,” since it can unbalance that important T1 and T2-helper cell response.

And take comfort in the results of the most recent study to look at actual, practicing marathoners. In it, 1,694 runners at the 2000 Stockholm Marathon informed researchers about any colds or other infectious illness they developed in the three weeks before or three weeks after the race. Nearly one-fifth of the runners fell ill during that time period. That’s higher than the rates in people generally, but it still means that the overwhelming majority of runners didn’t get sick.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

ban the speedshop

i ordinarily eschew anything that might give the appearance of marketing, focusing instead on just commentary and recommendations. but occasionally something comes along that is so notable that it stands on its own independent of commercial overtones.

this is one of them:
this is, without a doubt, an act of sheer genius. it is one of the most hilarious videos on cycling i've ever come across. even for people not into cycling, the writing and delivery are so over-the-top that you can't miss the satire. and for those into cycling, you'll catch everything that's being parodied.

for all that, you barely notice that it's a video for Pearl Izumi. it's that funny.

my favorite line: "...cycling is supposed to be are too cold, you are too hot, you are stinky, you are smelly." a friend of mine tells me the last part (which is in italian) is even better, since the speaker goes off talking about technology and how much he hates it.

but anyways, just watch it for yourself, and enjoy.